The Green New Deal – a Challenge to Both Parties

Marcus Otono

The Green New Deal, GND, resolution introduced by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, a New York member of the House of Representatives, and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, has been met by widespread enthusiasm from the left. It is an ambitious set of goals for the reordering of US society and economy to fight the looming climate emergency and deal with some of the more vexing economic problems, like the health care crisis in the US and out of control income inequality.

AOC took her seat in January, along with the representative Rashida Harbi Tlaib from Michigan’s 13th District. Both are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, as well as sitting as candidates of the Democratic Party. They represent a widespread turn to radical, indeed self-avowedly socialist, policies.

Certainly, in US terms, the proposal, even though it remains as yet only a set of goals and the most basic outline of how they might be achieved, at least starts a debate on the danger to the environment and the social evils afflicting US society. Obviously its drafters, knowing the composition of the legislature, the Supreme Court and the occupant of the White House, can hardly expect it to become law in the near future.

Has socialism come to America?
In spite of the self-identification of AOC, on occasion and depending on the audience of course, as a “socialist” and her membership of the DSA, the proposal itself is not in any way socialist. As the title suggests, it is an attempt to capitalize on one of the Democratic Party’s most ambitious legislative achievements ever, Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal. That embodied a major and permanent increase in intervention in the economy, social affairs and human rights by the federal Government. Now, coming after nearly four decades of retreat by the state and the demolition of social programs, and under a president pledged to even more radical moves in this direction, the ambition of such a shift is clear enough.

Just like FDR’s original, the GND “borrows” some principles from European Social Democracy in order to “reform” capitalism into becoming a fairer system for the rest of us. The major source of its urgency, however, is the need to fight climate change under the reign of a climate change denier, a fossil fuel promoter and a president who has demolished as much as he could of previous federal measures to combat it.

The Green New Deal resolution, as presented by Rep. AOC and Senator Ed Markey, seeks to link the fight for the increased social and economic well-being of ordinary Americans with a programme to protect people around the world who are becoming vulnerable to the devastating effects of extreme weather events, flooding, desertification and their catastrophic consequences for food production, healthcare, infrastructure, etc. It raises issues like wage levels, working hours and conditions because change radical enough to tackle the thrust of environmental destruction needs to benefit the vast majority, those who otherwise would suffer its worst effects. So the preamble to the resolution observes that,

“…the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal era created the greatest middle class that the US has ever seen” and concludes that the GND would be “a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”

As well as creating jobs, they claim that the GND will need large scale federal investment to rebuild and reorient “US infrastructure and industry” as well as “community-defined projects and strategies”, funding education and based on community ownership. Principle 11 talks of, “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States”.

Principle 8 talks about “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”. No. 9: talks of “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment”. To cap it all, we have no. 15: “providing all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”.

Obviously, the realization of these demands goes way further than what FDR or European Social Democracy achieved. But, just in case the reader thinks this tips the balance too far toward labor, it adds a principle for the small and medium sized business community with no. 14: “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies”.

Greening America
The resolution calls for the US to “meet 100 percent of our power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”. The exact combination of the many methods to achieve this is not clarified. Is it the market ‘solution’ of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems? Or is it the radical green demand to stop extraction and the supply of fossil fuels altogether. This means closing mines, oil wells, refineries, natural gas extraction, fracking, and import terminals. As the slogan goes; “Keep it in the ground”. Negotiating all this with the owners of land and mineral resources plus big fossil fuel companies, compensating them for their losses, all these present formidable obstacles that the GND resolution nowise addresses.

In fact this is not even the first proposal to carry the name. In 2006, the Green Party put together a “Green New Deal” that went further than this one and included an actual “economic bill of rights”, much like FDR’s economic bill of rights in his 1944 inauguration speech. Today’s GND doesn’t spell them out in the way the Green party and even FDR did. In other words, this isn’t as radical a proposal as those of the past. But, as we have seen, it is radical enough to look like socialism to the ruling class and its politicians and media.

The fevered right wing blowhards at Fox News will proclaim the imminent demise of capitalism and American exceptionalism or announce the second coming of Karl Marx, if this proposal begins to get any sort of traction. For them, anything to the left of the ultra-right populism of Donald Trump is “socialist.” After all it’s their job to keep his ageing, white nationalist base roiled enough to keep the advertising dollars and campaign contributions flooding in.

What’s worse, and more insidious, is that representatives of the more liberal bourgeois state media at CNN and MSNBC will also find fault with the GND because calling for massive state investment in people and infrastructure in the USA, and not advocating exclusively market based and global solutions, is impracticable and utopian. Of course, it is not utopian per se; it is only capitalism and its stranglehold on the means of production, its ownership of resources, its demand that profits come first and last, that challenges the GND’s “practicability”.

So who will pay?
The question of how to find the funds sufficient to pay for the huge federal investments called for in the GND is of course a political minefield for the Democratic Party. Most Congressional Democrats still insist on keeping a “balanced budget,” at least within a 10-year period. Some are more neo-Keynesian and think fears of deficit are overblown and this can be done to drive an economic transition, which in the end will bring in the tax dollars to settle it. But there are some Democrats, including tentatively AOC herself, who have gone for the fashionable “heterodox” Modern Monetary Theory, MMT.

MMT reassuringly tells us, against both mainstream bourgeois economics and Marxism, that it is the state, not the process of the exchange of commodities, let alone labor value, that lies at the roots of money. Thus, it asserts, the state does not need to get its resources from the people via taxes or borrow from the capitalist financiers, it can just issue enough money to pay for its spending. True, under modern capitalism, currency is “fiat money” that the state can issue, theoretically, without limit.

We saw this in practical terms with Quantitative Easing” in the great recession. Of course, the trillions “printed” did not trickle into the workers’ pockets. Instead, they bailed out banks “too big to fail” while inequality rocketed. The CEOs of the banks, whose actions had courted bankruptcy, awarded themselves eye-watering increases. Meanwhile, many workers lost their jobs and those that didn’t saw their real wages fall. In fact, a government’s ability to create money is not “free” of production, is not absolute. It is constrained by what happens in the real economy as a result and that depends on the movement in the rate of profit within production. If it falls, and supply consequently dwindles, then rampant inflation follows and the state finances soon lie in ruins.

Obviously, at first sight, limitless increases in money supply and state social spending seem to provide a neat solution to the problem that the neoliberals have left us; a powerful popular aversion to taxation. However, it does not “solve” the great problem that always results from excessive printing of money, inflation, indeed hyperinflation; something that we are witnessing in Venezuela today. In reality, MMT is a snake oil theory and if democratic socialists and Green New Dealers really tried to put it into practice they would suffer the same fate as the once fashionable “socialism of the twenty first century”.

No, the only source of funding for a real social and green New Deal, would have to be via steeply progressive taxation and outright expropriation of the wealthiest in society, using the proceeds to raise the living standards of the workers and the poor and to create a free universal health, education and welfare system. At the same time, it should address the environmental crisis by transforming production, agriculture, and power generation. Obviously this will be no easy matter. It requires nothing less than militant class struggle, ending with a workers’ government, in fact a social revolution.

Nonetheless, insofar as the Green New Deal does call for workers’ rights to organize to be protected and expanded and for minority and historically oppressed strata of the citizenry to be protected from any disruptions caused by green changeover, we should support it. As with all such worthy reforms, however, the source of the money needs to be tackled head on, not hidden behind utopian hopes, otherwise they will be watered down at the legislation stage, into something that’s more “affordable” to the 1 percent who, short of a revolution, will still hold the reins of power under capitalism.

Green New Deal – A Left Populist Proposal
We can expect the Green New Deal to be attacked by representatives of both the main parties, it is, after all, a left populist solution calling for big governmental investment at a time when the Reaganite mindset that government is bad and can’t solve anything that the private sector can’t solve better and cheaper is still dominant. You would think that this adoration of the private sector and the free market as some sort of panacea for all the faults of modern society would have been dumped by now since it played a part in unleashing the Great Recession, and then no one dared to suggest applying it as a solution. But among the political class of both bourgeois parties this failed ideology is still alive and thriving. Any legislative support for the GND will only come from the small core of old school Democrats, who were the basis of the party before the New Democrat ideology was ushered in by the Clinton presidency, but they are a vanishing breed on the political scene.

There is one other source of support, however, that should not be overlooked in modern politics, for all its emphasis on corporate donations and lobbyist support; the people themselves. Surveys have shown that the GND is popular with a majority of the people, with 81 percent of registered voters polled saying they either “strongly support”, 40 percent, or “somewhat support”, 41 percent, the proposal. Somewhat surprisingly, this also included 64 percent of Republicans. Of course, most of the time popular support doesn’t mean much. Congress, the president, and politicians in general in both parties pay more attention to what their corporate donors want than to what the people want when it comes to policy decisions and legislative action.

For the most part, left populist policies on a whole host of issues have popular support, but very little Congressional support. And we don’t expect this to change in the near future. To turn this type of resolution into legislation would take a super-majority of Congress, along with a President who is on-board with signing the bills passed by this imaginary left populist legislature. That any such electoral surge will happen short of an existential threat to the capitalist system is unlikely in the extreme.

Without that threat, the owners who benefit from the way things are now will not have any reason to change what is. The neoliberals and right populists are too entrenched and too united in their opposition to something that, although necessary, goes against their ideological grain.

Last, but not least, what party can we expect to pass measures that cut deep into the capitalists’ profits? Not the Democrats, the alternative party of Wall Street, that’s for sure. Even if scores more “democratic socialists” (reformists) are elected under the Democrat ticket this would not do. It requires a socialist party, with a mass working class base and the will to fight for it, not just at the polls but also on the streets, in the workplaces and in the communities.
No, in America more than almost anywhere else, the struggle will not be decided in Congress but on the streets and in the workplaces.

The Green New Deal – How to fight for it … and more

That does not mean we should turn our backs on the GND and the enthusiasm it has evoked.

Back in the 1930s, the Great Depression with its mass unemployment was what FDR responded to with the original New Deal. This in turn inspired labor leaders in Europe to put forward a series of “plans” on the same lines. One of the most famous was that of the Belgian socialist Henri De Man. Leon Trotsky wrote a criticism of its reformist weaknesses but accepted that Belgian workers were enthused and inspired to struggle for it. He therefore told his supporters that simply denouncing it would have no effect. Certainly criticize it openly and frankly but that could not be the end of the story. Instead he advised

“…insofar as the bourgeoisie tries to put obstacles to the realization of the plan we fight hand in hand with the workers to help them make this experiment. We share the difficulties of the struggle but not the illusions. Our criticism of the illusions must, however, not increase the passivity of the workers and give it a pseudo-theoretical justification but on the contrary push the workers forward. Under these conditions, the inevitable disappointment with the “Labor Plan” will not spell the deepening of passivity but, on the contrary, the going over of the workers to the revolutionary road.” (L D Trotsky, Revisionism and Planning, January 1934)

In truth, there is only one way to get serious parts of this proposal passed and that’s to exert an existential threat to the system that is wrecking our planet and ruining our lives. Militant action on the streets and in the workplaces is always, and has always been, the way to get things done in the US. The great labor struggles of the 1930s, the civil rights and antiwar movement of the 1960s, show that serious legislative reforms, action that benefits the majority, only follows on the heels of militant struggle.

This has been proven not just in the distant past, but recently too with the work stoppage by air traffic controllers that ended the government shutdown in hours and by various teachers’ strikes, even in the most conservative of states, getting most of what they asked for. If there’s one thing that capitalists hate more than anything else it’s an interruption of their profit chain. This is what they will pay attention to, not elections that have very little meaning and are years away.

In short, challenges at the time of elections should be only a part of a multi-faceted strategy to doing something decisive about climate change. Considering that 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come either from the US military or from 100 global corporations, anti-military and anti-capitalist demonstrations and actions need to be a huge part of this strategy.

They also need to reach out to workers and peoples in other countries because international common action is essential to tackle climate change. The problem is global so the solutions must be also. But we can’t, in any country, wait on the politicians to get it together enough to lead. As we’ve seen over and over again, their priorities are not our priorities. The drive for profit, for the bottom line, triumphs over saving the environment because of competition, for investments, for markets.

The politicians know that even if they follow the dictates of their bosses in the “private sector”, it will not be them in the frontline facing the dystopia of runaway climate change with its rising waters, super storms, food shortages, droughts, and floods and all the other problems whose first signs we are seeing today: problems that will only get worse as the inaction continues. They will have the wherewithal to move and protect themselves from the problems that they have caused in their chase for profit and global market, commodity and political hegemony, but we won’t.

Clearly, only mass action, by communities directly threatened by flooding or droughts and wildfires, by the oppressed and exploited communities needing jobs and investment in resources, by the working class as a whole, will be necessary to stand up to the sabotage and resistance of the most powerful capitalist class in the world.

An action program needs to be be put together by socialists, by the unions and alternative labor organizations, plus climate activists; one that can show the way forward to rescue humanity from the mess that capitalism has created. The Democratic Socialists of America should start to do this right way. It requires a planned changeover from fossil fuels; the rapid replacement of automobiles with internal the combustion engines by electric ones, the changeover of domestic and commercial heating likewise, a massive investment in renewable energy. It also requires massive development of fast, safe and cheap public transport systems and a high-speed train system, too, to slash the emissions caused by aviation.

It cannot be based on “market” solutions where the burden falls mainly on the rest of us and the pace of change is slow to nonexistent. It must of necessity mean the expropriation of the big polluters and of all the corporations whose facilities, scientists, engineers and skilled workers, are essential to the whole conversion plan.

Such a “solution” will lead to massive resistance as we see in France today with the Gilets Jaunes. The reforms outlined in the Green New Deal would only be a start for such a plan. No action should be off the table when it comes to saving us all. So, of course, the solutions will need to go even further than what’s outlined in the AOC-Markey resolution because any solutions that will work will have to target the priorities of the capitalist system. Those who rule that system will choose profit over saving the planet. It’s what they do. So, to really solve this existential crisis of humanity, ultimately, it’s capitalism that must go.